Disappointed in Jesus
2007-12-08 by Susan Andrews
Advent Three – Matthew 11: 2- 11 and Isaiah 35: 1-10
Tradition names the third Sunday of Advent “pink” Sunday, in the midst of the deep purple shadows of the season. And so the mood lifts as we allow rejoicing to erupt within the hard work of our repenting. It is interesting that the Gospel text for this Sunday starts in the dark place of John the Baptist’s psyche. But it ends with the vision and imaginative joy of Isaiah. And Jesus is the bridge.
I have always loved this Matthew text about John the Baptist, for he is so very human in this story. He has expectations and visions and values that define the holy for him–and he is not about to let Jesus change those perceptions. And so, he is deeply disappointed in Jesus, just as we are when God or our parents or our children or our friends end up being and doing something different than we think they should.
Here are excerpts from a 2003 sermon on this text:
This morning we meet John the Baptist in very odd circumstances. And what we discover is his deep disappointment with Jesus. Last week, we first met John in the wilderness, a wild man with a hairy shirt and a locust diet - a passionate prophet who was ranting and raving about the wrath of God. Calling those of us in the crowd and in these pews a Brood of Vipers, he made it clear that the wrath of God Almighty will devour all of us who do not confess and change our ways.. And if we don’t repent, the consequences will be clear. The ax of God’s judgment will cut us down and we will be thrown into the torture of unquenchable fire. Now, what I can’t figure out, is that rather than walking away, according to the third chapter of Matthew, the crowds of people just kept coming back for more, more of John’s verbal abuse. Well, now, fast forward two years to today’s text. John is in prison, because with his ususal offensive audacity, he has spoken truth to power. Yes, John has told Herod that it was wrong for him to commit adultery. It was wrong for him to steal his brother’s wife and then sleep with her. Such judgmentalism has gotten John in deep trouble, and today he languishes in a prison cell awaiting his death. And while he sits there he begins to hear all the things that Jesus is doing. And he has lots of time to think. Yes, John has lots of time to begin to realize that Jesus is acting very strangely. Rather than blazing with the fire of indignation, Jesus seems to be telling stories and playing with children. Rather than railing against the sins of the world, Jesus is eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and poor people. Rather than tossing people into the blistering cauldron of hell, he is listening to them, forgiving them, and changing them from the inside out. In Bible Study on Wednesday, one participant came up with an interesting image. What John expected in a Messiah was a rottweiler growling and attacking the sinners of the world. But what he got was a puppy, changing hearts with warmth and affection. No wonder, John has started asking the question: Is this the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Now in order to figure out this passage we need to digress for just a minute into the world of the prophets. Contrary to popular opinion, prophets in the Bible are not primarily fortune tellers who predict what is going to happen in the future. They are much more social commentators who accurately describe what is going on now - and usually in ways that people don’t want to hear. In the Hebrew scriptures the prophets were those men and women who experienced the mystery of God in some deep and personal way, and then felt called to articulate what they had seen and heard for others. Marcus Borg defines the Hebrew prophets this way: “ I see them as God-intoxicated voices of radical social criticism, and God-intoxicated advocates of an alternative social vision. Their dream is God’s dream. (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 127) According to this definition, John the Baptist was a true, blue prophet, a God-intoxicated dreamer who passionately advocated for God’s alternative social vision of shalom. But passionate as he was, in the long run, John wasn’t very persuasive. Walter Brueggemann has made a very helpful distinction between prophetic criticizing and prophetic energizing, both of which appear in abundance in the Hebrew scriptures. Prophetic criticizing takes a laser sharp look at the world and lifts up all the blatant, sin and selfishness of the world. Prophetic criticizing proclaims God’s dream and desire for creation and then attacks each one of us in the heart of our apathy and our greed. Prophetic criticizing drops bombs of honest judgment and leaves us writhing in the ashes of guilt and failure, with radical repentance the only hope for survival. Prophetic criticizing has its prominent place in scripture, as John the Baptist can attest to. And God has the right to put it there. But there is very little Good News in prophetic criticism. The other form of prophetic activity is prophetic energizing. And it is equally prominent in scripture. This form of proclamation is centered in hope. Despite our sin and our failures as God’s people, God has not given up on us or the world. And God is about to do a new thing with and for the world that we have desecrated. When those disciples come back to Jesus and ask him John’s question, Jesus responds with classic prophetic energizing. Is he, Jesus, the Messiah, or should John - should we - look for another? Quoting Isaiah, Jesus presents his positive messianic vision, his description of the new social order that God is bringing about: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news, not bad news,brought to them. And then knowing that John will be very disappointed in these words, Jesus adds a wistful benediction: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” It is clear that in his preaching and teaching, Jesus combined prophetic criticizing with prophetic energizing. He railed at the legalistic religious authorities of his day, calling them “hypocrites” and ‘broods of vipers’. He gently criticized Martha for her anxious busyness and the woman at the well for her promiscuous lifestyle. But he constantly forgave the ones he criticized and then energized them with visions of new chances, new beginnings, new opportunities for abundant living. I believe that Jesus took the prophetic vocation and carried it one step further. He combined prophetic criticizing and prophetic energizing by embodying them both. Through prophetic actualizing, Jesus became the incarnation of the dream, the embodiment of the new social order, the one who walked the talk, and lived the vision. And, brothers and sisters, as the Body of Christ, we are called to do the same.
Jesus used imagination as the main tool of his “prophetic energizing,” and he learned this art from the prophet Isaiah. Another sermon (2004) excerpt:
If I were a high school English teacher and you were my class, we could spend a wonderful hour de-constructing our scripture passage for this morning (Isaiah 35:1-10). For it is a breathtaking piece of literature. There is anthropomorphism, deserts singing and streams rejoicing with delight. There is hyperbole, deaf ears unplugged and feeble knees leaping with abandon. And there is onomatopoeia, the dance of our tongue as sighing and sorrow fleeing away. Whatever this passage is, it is not dogma or science. Instead it is stunning poetry, painting the way things are meant to be. The Bible is a strange and wonderful world. And in our attempts to understand it, we have wrung the mystery out of it. Yes, the Bible is about law, and history, and ethics. Yes, the Bible demands much of us, both in reading it and living it. But most of all, the Bible is about imagination. And it is about story, about the central narrative of human life. And about the different versions of that narrative that God, the Great Imaginer, has composed throughout the years. Because a good story always bear repeating. Think about it. God the Sculptor, with great skill and vision, shapes the world and all that is good within it. And with special tenderness God scoops up the earth and makes earthlings filled with breath and branded with the divine image. And then God places the earthlings in Paradise to enjoy the pure goodness of sense and sound, of body and soul. But confused and selfish and greedy to become God, the earthlings wander out on their own, and their lostness leads to broken-ness. Their fragility leads to enmity and fear and death. But then, in the midst of their enslaved condition, God the Emancipator, writes a new version of the story, recreating the people with a law and a land and a vision. God leads them from Egypt through a wilderness of possibility toward a Promised Land of reconciliation. For generations God is patient, nurturing the people through praise and prophets. But they, but we, don’t get it. And so with divine sadness God refuses to intervene. Enemies capture their dream. And the people are dragged into exile. But of course, that is not the end of the story. Today Isaiah gives hints of version three of God’s story. He is speaking to these people who have been exhausted by exile, dragged to a foreign land where all they can do is weep by the waters of Babylon. Though much of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first 34 chapters of his book is filled with judgment and warning, all of a sudden today, God the Poet jars us with joy. Isaiah gives the depressed, dis-empowered refugees a new vision, a new version of the story. And this vision is invigorating imagination in the midst of crippling reality. And so, God’s great narrative of hope and salvation continues to unfold in the pages of scripture and in the pages of our lives, all through the power of imagination. But all too often, in the politics of the church, imagination from God and about God seems to frighten and divide. How very sad. After all the greatest Imagination of all time was Jesus, who of course was version four of the great biblical narrative. Jesus came as the unimaginable intimacy of God into a broken, alienated world. Jesus was a crocus blossoming in the wilderness of Roman rule. Jesus was power born in the absurdity of a stable. Jesus was God, the potent potentate of time, shriveled up as a helpless baby. Jesus was ineffable holiness, come to be one of us, suffering with Skin on. And Jesus used imagination to recreate the human possibilities of life. Jesus said “You have heard it said..But I say to you” He said: “Think outside the box.” He said: “Imagine a new way.” Forgive your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Proclaim good news to the poor. Fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. Judge not, that ye not be judged. Flavor the world not with bitter power, but with salty love. Do not look for a kingdom of gold, but instead seek the kingdom of God that is within you. And then Jesus told stories meant to unleash our imagination. Imagine God’s tenacious love as if it is a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, or a woman sweeping all day until she finds a lost coin. Imagine God’s grace as generous as a patriarch welcoming home a lost son, with no strings attached, no demands, nothing but unconditional love. Imagine a banquet table where the riff-raff have the seats of honor, and where no one is excluded because of any human condition. Yes, just imagine a God who is continually re-creating the world, a God who takes the initiative again and again to unfold flowers of possibility in the deserts of our unfinished lives.
Judgment and frustration are realities of life–and tend to shape our reactions to the brokenness all around us. As those who know the way God wants things, we disciples can be pretty irascible, constantly engaging in prophetic criticizing for the sake of the kin-dom. But today, Jesus invites us into a different discipline, the art of imagination. He engages in “prophetic energizing,” calling us to “prophetic actualizing.” And he promises us that the lame will leap and the crocuses will bloom, even in the most arid places of this wilderness world.May it be so!
Crowing and Lois
2007-12-07 by David von Schlichten
Thanks, Lois, for your response. Your comment makes a great deal of sense. I agree that asking the congregation to participate is quite risky.
According to my wife, the adult Sunday school class found the crowing "amusing." My guess is that some liked it, some did not, no one found it offensive. I have a strong relationship with my congregation, so I suspect that if anyone did not like the crowing, she or he was probably quick to forgive me. My parishioners are magnanimus.
Thanks again, Lois.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Crowing in Church
2007-12-07 by Lois P. Strukl
Dear Rev. von Schlichten,
I realize that this is a few days late but I feel I must comment on crowing during a sermon.
Did your congregation comment on your behavior? If, as Rev. Howell says, the unusual sermon is well done, it will be well received.
I applaud your risky and bold behavior. In my humble opinion, a congregation is made far more uncomfortable when asked to participate during a sermon. Such exercises as meditation, writing or hand-holding are rejected by many who come from a conservative tradition. If asking folks to participate during a sermon, be sure it is something the timid can reject and not feel ostracized.
Thanks for sharing!
Response to a Comment Sent to Me
2007-12-06 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to the reader who sent me a comment via "Submit a Question."
The reader pointed out that the Omaha shooter wanted to be famous, and the media, including bloggers, have made him so. We have given the shooter negative attention, which, for most people, is preferrable to no attention.
Even so, it is important for us to talk about the shooting and its affect on us all. Therefore, I will probably keep contributing to the shooter's fame for the sake of a greater good, which is helping myself and others make sense of and learn from such tragic falls.
By the way, it is sadly ironic that this shooter achieved a fame that he is not even alive to "enjoy." How strange and painful.
Thanks for the comment. I welcome more.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Omaha and Isaiah
2007-12-06 by David von Schlichten
Tom, your linking of the one taken/one left passage to the Omaha shooting is eerie indeed, and insightful. It is urgent for us to be ready always, always ready.
I find myself thinking about the Omaha shooting and how our society, over and over and over, fails when it comes to the proper rearing of boys.
We fail to teach our boys how to deal with anger and sorrow without being violent. We fail to teach our boys how to find success and validation that do not involve competition and domination. Our boys understand video games better than they understand relationships.
In one of her sermons, Elizabeth Achtemeier proclaims that, to make the world safe for our children, we should, among other things, work on making our children safe for the world.
Maybe part of the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah is our working to help our children, including our boys, learn how to love themselves and others instead of thinking the world is a battle against them that they must win at all costs.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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